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About a week ago when I saw Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges doc I was shocked at how ordinary the film was. To cut a review short, I felt that a band as sordid as the Stooges warranted a doc that matched their extremes and that it was a surprise a filmmaker as stylistically daring as Jim Jarmusch would make a film that turned about to be as ordinary as it was. While it’s not an excuse, it is possible that the same energy Jarmusch put into his latest feature ended up bleeding into that doc, as Paterson proves to be an utterly extraordinary film about very ordinary people.
Paterson loosely follows a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in New Jersey’s declining industrial city Paterson, who spends his free time composing minimal poems that draw on the everyday, largely inspired by William Carlos Williams, a poet hailing from, you guessed it Paterson. On the surface this seems like a concept so utterly twee that it belongs safely in the hands of Wes Anderson who’d probably incorporate a long lost relative, an exquisitely designed bus and Bill Murray. At one point in the film Paterson overhears two college students on his bus discuss an anarchist philosopher that originates from Paterson and as they depart they pretentiously wonder “if there’s any other anarchists in Paterson – aside from us”. These students are played by the kids from Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and there presence feels like an irresistible jab from Jarmusch.
Instead of turning its protagonist’s quirks into wacky subplots to spin a movie around, the film is allowed to unfold with the same rhythms as life and often to utterly breath-taking effect. While there are moments of tension in the film – Paterson’s bus breaks down, a hoodie gang expresses an interest in stealing his dog – these never move beyond being the merest of digressions and nor do they ever disturb the carefully studied realism of the film. Jarmusch has always been a director that worked at his own pace and in Paterson he fully accomplishes this. We get a good sense of Paterson’s routine – he wakes up between 6 and 6:30, drives his bus, eavesdrops on conversations between five year olds, constructions workers, old ladies, and students, writes a few lines of poetry, spends time with his wife, walks his dog and drinks beer with his friends. This sounds boring sure, but the film is able to weave in small observations and human moments that make every minute close to mesmerising. The film never passes judgement on weather Paterson’s poems are actually good in much the same way it treats it’s background events and characters; we’re just invited to observe them as they are. Paterson is almost certainly going to warrant repeat viewings just to pick up on all the nuances and creases carefully painted on the screen.
Considering that his filmography includes rock and roll hitmen, distraught prisoners, psychedelic cowboys and lovelorn vampires, a retiring and poetic bus driver might seem dull, but Paterson ends up being one of the best characters that Jarmusch has ever committed to screen. A large portion of this has to do with what must surely be a star making performance on Adam Driver’s behalf. His rakish frame and deep brown eyes put to good use, Driver seems totally at home in this performance. Every nod of the head, every smile, every word spoken feels simultaneously effortless and perfectly weighed and yet remarkably un-showy. Driver might never, despite Star Wars, carry a blockbuster or sell tickets using just his name, but anybody that cares about acting as a craft would do well to observe his performance. Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is also worth noting, playing Paterson’s air-headed but well meaning wife Laura, who races from one hare brained scheme (cup cake decorating) to the next (country singing). It’s a role that could have very easily been fumbled and turned into something one note and insufferable, but to Farahani’s credit you easily understand not only how deeply her husband cares for her, but why the relationship works as well. Barry Shabaka Henley and Chasten Harmon contribute minor but drum tight performances to the film, performances that flow seamlessly into the grander tapestry.
So much has been said about how small, independent movies are being crushed by bloated Hollywood films and much has been made about how hard it is to get small, personal films made in America. If there’s one thing to take away from Paterson, it’s that there is a crack in the American film industry outside of Hollywood where filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, along with the likes of Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, can thrive. Given how genuinely incredibly the output from this crack can be, films like Paterson deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Paterson is in cinemas from Friday 25th November.
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